Larkin has been regarded as one of the most pessimistic poets. His pessimism connects him with Thomas Hardy, though there are other affinities also between the two writers. Larkin surely takes a very dark view of human life. The main emphasis in his poems is on failure and frustration in human life.
And then there is his preoccupation with death. In a number of poems he emphasizes the sombre and grim aspects of human life; and in many poems he speaks of the inevitability of death. We are all aware of the facts of failure and frustration in human life; and we are all aware of the inevitability of death. But what makes Larkin a pessimist, and a confirmed pessimist at that, is his repeated emphasis, and over-emphasis, on these aspects of human life. On account of his repeated reminders to us of the inevitability of death, he has been regarded as “a graveyard poet”; and the general and brooding atmosphere of melancholy and despondency in his poems justifies the label “pessimist” for him. A number of poems come to our minds in this connection. The poem, Next, Please contains the idea that none of our hopes is ever fulfilled, and that everything that life promises to us proves to be an illusion. And this poem culminates in the view that only one thing is certain, namely death. The poem Days tells us that days are the only justification for our existence and that days are our only means of finding any satisfaction in life. If days were to be eliminated from life, we would be left with only darkness and death. The poem Ambulances also paints a gloomy picture of human life because of the fact that every street is visited by an ambulance at one time or the other. An ambulance is a symbol of disease and death. Dockery and Son contains the following pessimistic line: “Life is first boredom, then fear”. And this poem concludes with the pessimistic view that there is old age, and that the end of old age is death. Aubade is a poem in which Larkin’s fear of death reaches its climax. Larkin himself described it his “in-a-funk-about-death poem.”
The Redeeming Features of His Pessimistic Poems
However, Larkin is not a uniformly pessimistic poet. Some of his poems have a profoundly moral character which expresses itself in the need to control and organize life, rather than submit to a pre-determined pattern of failure. There is generally a debate going on in many of his poems between the positive and the negative aspects of human life. Often, in these poems, he speaks in his own person, though sometimes the speaker is an imaginary individual. Most of his poems are very far from being records of passive suffering. Of course, his response to failure and to death is not Yeats’s heroic struggle to rise above time and death; but his response is not the same as Thomas Hardy’s passive acceptance of an adverse fate. He certainly fears death; but he seldom expresses a wish to die. Normally, as in the poem Aubade, he shrinks in horror from the prospect of dying. No matter how unsatisfactory the course of human life may be, there is also a sense in which Larkin views trials and tribulations as rewarding in themselves. He believes that, only by fully comprehending the fact and the intensity of suffering, does any catching of happiness become possible.
The Element of Affirmation in the Final Stanza of Church Going
The note of affirmation is unmistakable in a number of poems by Larkin. Church Going has generally been regarded as a poem in which Larkin scoffs at churches and at going to churches. But we should not underestimate the final stanza of this poem in which he seriously expresses the view that a church is “a serious house on serioi1 earth,” and that certain things about a church can never become obsolete. If nothing else, a visitor to a church can draw some wisdom from his contemplation of the graves in the churchyard, and from his contemplation of the fact of death. Much the same point has been made in an apparently more desolate poem entitled The Building.
Optimistic Suggestions in Some Other Poems
The poem Coming is, on the whole, optimistic even though the poet refers to his childhood as a “forgotten boredom.” A thrush in this poem is described as singing in its “fresh-peeled voice;” and its song is conveying the message that soon spring would come. In the closing lines, the poet begins to feel happy like a child who can understand nothing except the laughter of the adult world. In the poem Wedding-Wind, the speaker, who is a newly married woman, feels happy enough though her happiness is marred by the high wind and the restlessness of the horses. She feels melancholy to think that any man or beast should lack the happiness which she is enjoying. Although she continues to feel happy, the poem ends with a series of questions which express her doubts as to the durability of her happiness. The poem Water describes the kind of new religion which the poet would construct if invited to do so. The concluding four lines of this poem are vaguely symbolic but the note of affirmation in these lines cannot be doubted. These four lines depict the poet as raising a glass of water in the direction of the eastern sky in the belief that “any-angled light” would “congregate” on the water endlessly. In the poem Days, the first stanza is undoubtedly joyous because it expresses the view that days are where we live and when we feel happy. However, this optimistic view about the days is undermined by the subsequent thought of death. And yet the thought of death does not altogether nullify the affirmative view that days are a time of vigorous work and activity which make us happy. The poem High Windows expresses deep regret over the lost opportunities of love-making and sexual intercourse; but the poem ends with a symbolic picture which suggests hopefulness. In the final stanza, the poet thinks of high windows and the “sun-comprehending glass,” and the “deep blue air beyond it.” Even though this “deep blue air” shows nothing, and is nowhere, it is endless. The foregoing lines offer a very gloomy perspective, but the last stanza is symbolically, though vaguely, affirmative. The poem entitled The Whitsun Weddings has a faint touch of optimism even though the poem as a whole contains merely a description of the sights witnessed by the poet who remains a detached observer but who uses such melancholy phrases as “a happy funeral” and “a religious wounding.” The affirmative touch is to be found in the concluding lines with their reference to “an arrow-shower somewhere becoming rain.”
Affirmative Touches in Vers De Societe and in Faith Healing-
The poem Vers de Societe is cynical; and yet it has an optimistic touch. Larkin does not attach much importance to social life and social relations and, therefore, in this poem he describes the persons attending a party as a “crowd of craps.” However, going to attend a party has its advantage”: it would afford to the poet an opportunity of escaping from his egoism and from his sense of isolation. The poem Faith Healing is a sceptical poem with a touch of cynicism; but even here we have the following affirmative lines:
In every one there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
The Sanctity of Human Relationships in An Arundel Tomb
Then there is the poem, An Arundel Tomb. This poem makes an ambivalent approach to love. Here the poet carefully weighs losses against gains, without denying the fact of love and the power of love. On one hand, love is merely a theoretical possibility; but, on the other hand, love has the last word. There is an equipoise in the poem, suggesting that the only love acceptable to the poet is the one which knows the immensity of threat to it. The poet realizes the fact that the statues of a loving husband and his loving wife are made of stone, and that the faithfulness of the couple is therefore a lie or a deception. But, while the tomb represents a deception or a lie, it has become a kind of truth by virtue of having survived. The poet believes that the very durability of the sculpture is a proof of the continuance of love. The “stone fidelity” of the Earl and his Countess has become their final blazon, and what would survive of them is love. Thus, in this poem, Larkin expresses his recognition of the sanctity of personal relationships.
Toads and Toads Revisited, Most Affirmative of the Poems
Perhaps the most affirmative of Larkin’s poems are Toads and Toads Revisited. In the first poem, we listen to a debate between the rebellious and the orthodox sides of his personality. The poet begins by complaining about the heaviness and the irksomeness of the work or the drudgery to which he ‘is subjected everyday. But then he begins to realize that he also experiences an inner urge to work. He comes to the conclusion that one cannot get rid either of a desire for idleness and leisure or of the inner compulsion to work. Larkin’s recognition of the need to work is a clear indication of his positive thinking in this poem. Toads Revisited is even more affirmative because here the poet does not waver at all but is convinced that work is essential and that work would eventually help him to face his death with an easy mind. Work may be cumbersome and tedious; but it helps one to combat the thought of death. The very dailiness and the very repetitiveness of work give the poet a feeling of being deeply involved with life. Work is not so much a routine as a ritual and, like all rituals, it serves as a means of support and comfort to a man. Thus the “toad work” becomes fully acceptable to the poet.
It is evident from the above rapid survey of some of Larkin’s poems that the affirmative element in his poetry is much less conspicuous than the negative or the pessimistic aspect of it. The affirmative element is rather faint and sometimes barely perceptible or identifiable. Indeed, the affirmative element is minimal; but it does exist, and it cannot be ignored.